Thursday, February 22, 2024 Feb 22, 2024
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We Have an Arts District. Now We Need a Neighborhood.

Before that corner of downtown really comes to life, here’s what needs to happen.
By Peter Simek |
illustration by Michael Witte

Kevin Lynch picked the site. November 10, 1977, was the urban planning consultant’s day before the Dallas City Council. Lynch’s consulting firm had spent months surveying Dallas, studying the way people moved and interacted with Dallas’ built environment, trying to pinpoint the ideal location for what his client wanted: an “arts district.” The city didn’t just want a plot for its cultural centers. It dreamed of a neighborhood centered on a great green space, an urban oasis where people could gather, dally, and absorb the culture.

By the time city leaders set Lynch to the task of picking out a site, the MIT professor was nearing the end of a prestigious career in urban planning. He had studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, and his book, The Image of the City, was acclaimed for its careful attention to the way in which people understand the layout of place. Lynch was the most well-known city planner to tackle Dallas’ long-standing urban problem—revitalizing downtown—since Vincent Ponte, the man behind the underground shopping malls and elevated walkways connecting the office buildings in Dallas’ Central Business District. In hindsight, Ponte seems like a crackpot, but in 1968 the front cover of a regional edition of Esquire declared: “Vincent Ponte should have his way with Dallas.” Ponte did, and we are still trying to recover from it.

Lynch’s ideas about city planning were more progressive than Ponte’s insofar as they looked backward at how great cities have worked instead of forward, like Ponte’s, into some hazy notion of an urban utopia. So on that November day in 1977, Lynch made his recommendation: the Arts District, he told Mayor Robert Folsom and the rest of the Dallas City Council, should be built on a swath of empty concrete in the northeast corner of the Central Business District, a site pushed up against two freeways and speckled with a few remaining historical buildings, such as the Belo Mansion and the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe—reminders of a time when Ross Avenue boasted a row of prominent homes and notable residents.

On the surface, Lynch’s pick seemed an odd choice. What about Fair Park, the several potential sites along Turtle Creek, or the land adjacent to the convention center? But Lynch saw the site and the Arts District project as an opportunity to take a crack at one of downtown Dallas’ biggest obstacles, its isolation from the rest of the city, cut off by a ring of highways. “There are ample sites here to choose from, and it is possible to bridge out of the freeway ring at that point,” Lynch told the Council. At the location he recommended, Lynch continued, new buildings could be mixed with existing historic landmarks and planned commercial buildings to help generate 24-hour activity downtown.

If correctly designed, Lynch figured, the Arts District could function as the nucleus of a neighborhood that stretched under the highways, drawing life into downtown. On the scrappy section of land just south of Woodall Rodgers Freeway, Lynch saw it perfectly: an escape route from the center of Dallas.

The 46th floor of 2200 Ross Avenue (better known as the downtown skyscraper with the hole in it) houses the offices of Downtown Dallas, the nonprofit organization established in 1992 to champion a revitalization of the city’s urban core. The office features floor-to-ceiling windows that look out at a great expanse of tan and brown land that curves gently and disappears over a far-off horizon. Standing with Veletta Forsythe Lill in the conference room overlooking the Arts District, I feel a little like one of the angels from Wim Wenders’ 1989 film Wings of Desire who hover over the melancholic Berlin landscape, silent witnesses to the drama unfolding below. Lill is the executive director of the Dallas Arts District, one of a number of organizations with overlapping interests in the development of the area. “Think of us as a great homeowners association,” she says. “I act as the president. I bring everyone together.”

===“It will be something that helps revitalize downtown,” DCPA CEO Mark Nerenhausen says. “That’s a park; it is the largest urban park in the city. We’ve changed how downtown feels. There are going to be merchants who go, ‘I couldn’t care less about the arts, but it is good for my business.’” In other words: if we build it, they will come.!==

There is a great desire to think of the Arts District as a neighborhood, perhaps more so than when Kevin Lynch scouted the site. These days, the talk is of a pedestrian-friendly, Jane Jacobs-style neighborhood, with apartment dwellers browsing in shops that line streets leading into the Arts District. “Up until this point, additions had been made to the district, but it didn’t quite gel,” Lill says. “Today you can see a true sense of neighborhood. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, largely because people can truly see it as a neighborhood right now.”

There are still some holes, such as the circle of concrete off Pearl Street, which is slated as the future home of Museum Tower, a high-rise residential development; and the jagged roof of the underground parking lot on Ross, across from the Cathedral, which Lill says will eventually be capped with another residential development. In fact, when talking about the Arts District as a neighborhood, that’s the problem: there are few places for people to live.

Lill is aware of this. She admits there is work to be done, and she quickly ticks off a half-dozen projects, like the widening of sidewalks on Pearl Street, the creation of pedestrian linkages with retail shops between the district and the DART line on Bryan Street, and more residential housing, preferably offering apartments for a range of incomes. “I think it is important that we try to have some space where artists can live,” Lill says.

So while the city gears up for the opening of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts this month, the people involved with growing the Arts District are talking about 2011. By that time, this scene will include a deck park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway, opening visual and more pedestrian-friendly access to Uptown. Lill also hopes to see progress on Museum Tower by then, as well as developments on some of the vacant parking lots surrounding the district.
“I think there is plenty of empirical data that shows investment is drawn to areas around cultural neighborhoods,” Lill says. “Not only is it good for the community, it is good for [developers’] pocketbooks.”

The Arts District is still a vision in progress, says Mark Nerenhausen, president and CEO of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. “What is interesting about these projects is that the focus is on the buildings, but when you start looking at the future vision, really it is about a much larger community vision coalescing around the buildings,” he says. “Really, what we are talking about here is fulfilling and really launching a vision that is a generation old.”

That vision transcends the scene on the ground, the way the physical presence of the Arts District will impact the real estate in and around downtown. Nerenhausen came to Dallas from the Broward County Center for the Performing Arts, a similar project in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In Broward County, Nerenhausen helped leverage the weight of a gorilla-sized arts development to create a larger impact on the local culture. His organization established operational efficiencies among the various arts organizations within and outside the district (such as uniform ticketing and expanded marketing), and it created international partnerships that raised the profile of the South Florida arts scene abroad.

“A performing arts center is both a place—it provides a geographic focus for a city—and, also, the performing arts center of the 21st century, without sounding too esoteric, is an organizing principle or a system,” Nerenhausen says. “We can help a lot of other arts groups without being hierarchical. It’s almost like more of an Internet model, like hyperlinks.” In the old model, Nerenhausen says, arts organizations established formal partnerships when working together with contracts and the rest. “Now there are multiple points of entry,” he says.

Nerenhausen sees the arts district as a unifying force that functions as a reference point for the city’s culture at large. He points to recent efforts in Singapore and London to build centralized arts locations as an indication that even established centers of international finance see the value in an arts district in raising a city status. “I don’t think single-handedly we change what a city does,” he says. “But if I look at this center or look at other major centers, we understand that we have a significant role to play in a direct sense.”

Nerenhausen’s vision for the Arts District unfolds in decades, not months or years. First there was a decade of what he calls “vision building,” then a decade of fundraising, followed by a decade of planning for the construction of the buildings. With most of the structures built, the next few decades will be spent growing out the Arts District as urban neighborhood.

“It will be something that helps revitalize downtown,” he says. “That’s a park; it is the largest urban park in the city. We’ve changed how downtown feels. There are going to be merchants who go, ‘I couldn’t care less about the arts, but it is good for my business.’”

In other words: if we build it, they will come.

===Build the Arts District, and the neighborhood will indeed follow.!==

One can’t help but admire the dream, and with the finishing touches being put on the new buildings, it is hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm. But Kevin Lynch’s vision of the district as a neighborhood bridge between downtown and Uptown, as an arts-fed catalyst for revitalizing and “re-residentializing” the city center is a long way from being realized.

Back on the ground, crossing Ross and heading up Pearl Street to Flora, I am trying to stay sensitive to Lynch’s concept of “place legibility.” In cities, Lynch wrote, we move not only through a physical environment but through a mental representation, a cognitive map made up of our memories. This map consists of a network of paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. The density of features, of memorable pedestrian encounters, makes a vivid city; the lack of such features leads to an urban space lacking in distinctness and identity, Lynch argued.

What is noticeable about walking the Arts District today is how much pedestrian space there is between the collection of distinctive features. From the elegant plaza and façade of the cathedral, you walk down a wide and busy Pearl Street, lined with the red-brick side of the cathedral on one side and the nondescript gray walls of the Belo Mansion on the other. Turning left on Flora toward the Dallas Museum of Art, the walk takes you past a parking lot on the right and more of the Belo’s gray walls on the left. There are a few windows along the way looking into neatly kept offices, one of which displays a model of the proposed Museum Tower development. At the end of the street, the front doors of the Nasher and the Crow Collection of Asian Art look at each other, and across Harwood there is another open space leading into the DMA. The streetscapes here are elegant and pleasing, but they do not invite lingering, especially on a hot August day.

It is much the same headed the other direction down Flora: well-imagined outdoor lobby spaces abutting undeveloped parking sites. The Arts District is being touted as the largest of its kind at 70 acres, and on the ground, you can feel it. But the design and layout of the buildings, the flow of traffic on the north-south streets that intersect Flora, and the sheer size of the place dampen any desire to veer off course and explore surrounding streets. This may be simply because right now there isn’t much to explore off Flora Street besides the lobbies of towering office buildings and vacant lots. More troubling is the confusion one feels navigating from Flora to the future site of Woodall Rodgers Park. The walls of the Nasher line Olive and Harwood streets, making for an uneventful pedestrian trek up from Flora. None of the museums along the future park site have openings onto the park (though there is some talk that the DMA and Nasher will create access from their sites), and most of the Arts District will still abut open freeway after Pearl Street, even after the park opens.

All this walking makes me wonder how the new Arts District space will function in the early going. Jane Jacobs’ classic urban study, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, can be broken down into a single, simple concept: great cities thrive on neighborhoods that encourage pedestrian traffic, traffic that offers many eyes to keep streets safe and many intersecting actions to keep places interesting. This is best achieved in neighborhoods where a variety of uses—from residential and recreational to office and retail—creates a web of interweaving activity. But on the ground, the Arts District looks like it will remain an entertainment destination. Some people may arrive at the performance halls after trekking up from the DART stations on Bryan. Some workers from nearby office buildings will take their sandwiches to a bench in the district during their lunch hours. But the vast majority of visitors will drive in, park in one of the underground lots, and walk up to an event. Festivals and public gatherings may be organized in the district’s open space, but when they finish, the area will vacate, and for large portions of the day, the Arts District and the surrounding streets will remain quiet and untraveled.

And so with the opening of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, the decades-old vision of a vibrant downtown neighborhood remains a dream. Perhaps you can blame the economic slowdown for stalling adjacent development. Perhaps this is how it had to happen all along. Build the Arts District, and the neighborhood will indeed follow.

Mark Nerenhausen says he saw the progression in Florida. After the Broward County Center for the Performing Arts was built, development followed. But Nerenhausen adds that despite the Arts District’s potential for spurring a vibrant downtown neighborhood, the district has a much wider and deeper impact on the life of the city. “These places don’t happen unless the community on some scale understands the role that culture plays in the larger sense of what a community really is—an identity and who we really are,” he says.

He points to the tiny 19th-century Texas towns that, after building courthouses and city halls, built opera houses or community theaters. “What we’re doing is nothing new,” he says. “It is an age-old mode of people around the world.”

And in that sense, it may not matter whether the Arts District is able to create a downtown neighborhood modeled off the walkable environments so loved in other cities. Perhaps after decades of revisioning efforts, starts and stops, streams of consultants trying to turn Dallas into a “real city,” the Arts District will instead give us something else, something that helps define us, something that makes us proud of this place—of what we have been able to accomplish thus far.

Peter Simek is editor in chief of the arts and culture site Renegade Bus. Write to [email protected].

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